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Transition’s hidden costs

by Karin Mattisson
Those who have been hardest hit by these times of upheaval in the former Soviet republic of Georgia are inevitably the most vulnerable. The social sector is devastated, with little or no resources to care for these victims of transition. It is in this void that assistance such as that provided by the Red Cross can mean for some the difference between life and death.

Georgia was once considered the jewel of the Soviet Union. People enjoyed one of the highest standards of living, and industrial exports covered the budget. Today the industries are dead, and nowhere more dead than in Rustavi, in the south of the country. Here, the people have no jobs, no homes and little hope.

“I really don’t know how we are going to sort this out. Only God knows. But where there is no hope there is no life,” says Ahemedov Shamizaatan, an unemployed factory worker and 40-year resident of Rustavi.




No isolated case

Those most affected by the transition often remain behind closed doors, either too tired or too sick to seek help. One such person is Svetlana, a 90-year-old ethnic Russian. Left alone to fend for herself, she spends her days lying on her bed – an old beach chair she found in the garbage. She suffers from acute arthritis, which has left her immobilized much of the time. Her State pension of 8.5 laris or US$6 per month can barely buy one kilo of beef and a few loaves of bread, as well as pay for electricity and heating

Svetlana is one of 50,000 lone, elderly people receiving food parcels each month from the International Federation. By knocking on hundreds of doors in decrepit apartment buildings and seeking out State institutions that have fallen through the social security networks, the Georgian Red Cross and the Federation are reaching out to many of these silent victims.

As Niels Scott, the Federation’s head of delegation in Tbilisi, says, “These food parcels are meant to be complementary to their diet, but for many people it is their staple, with the occasional purchase of food being the complement.”

Hidden victims

With the breakdown of the social sector, caring for the most vulnerable is often left to non-governmental humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Sasha, a member of the Georgian Red Cross, runs a pensioners’ home in Rustavi. Most of the occupants are women. The building, a former day care centre, looks suitable for demolition, but the residents are grateful to have a roof over their heads. Last year, the Netherlands Red Cross provided funds to rehabilitate the home. Windows were replaced, walls were plastered and painted, and a heating system installed. All this work meant that the fatal cold of winter was kept outside.

In 1997, the Federation renovated numerous medical and social facilities, providing heating and new roofing. This contribution to renovating a small part of the health system brought some relief to many.

The Surami Psychiatric Hospital outside Tbilisi is one of five such hospitals to benefit from the Federation’s relief programmes. Food, medicines and clothing were distributed to the 61 patients who have no other home. Once busy, the hospital now has only two or three sections open. Outside are wrecks of buses that will never carry patients again, but they have not been replaced. “It would be great to have an ambulance,” says Doctor Malkhazi Chagorhvili with a sigh. For him, mental patients should not be viewed as society’s forgotten members as they are in so many other places in the eastern European countries. But he has few resources, other than the Red Cross assistance.




Ethnic violence

Like so many other small regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has suffered internal conflict within areas seeking independence. Abkhazia, formerly a holiday resort, is now surrounded by minefields and guarded by Russian troops and UN observers. Most of the inhabitants have fled. Paradoxically, Abkhazia cannot survive without Georgia, and Georgia cannot manage without Abkhazia. But the conflict continues – to the detriment of all.

There are about 200,000 internally displaced people from Abkhazia in Georgia today. In 1997, the Federation assisted 130,000 displaced in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo. Most of these people live with relatives or in collective centres. The centres they occupy are old Soviet hotels with no running water, frequent fires and deteriorated conditions.

Efforts to encourage people to return to their homes have been going on for some time. The problem is that there is often nothing to return to and people remain afraid. This means that only a trickle of people have so far gone home.

Focused on the future

Georgia is a critical link in the oil pipeline between Azerbaijan and the Black Sea ports. This link could be quite lucrative and became a substantial source of income for the country. But the problems of the day – internal ethnic violence, economic ruin and social breakdown – mean the road ahead is treacherous. This is where aid organizations come in to ease the suffering and assist those left behind in the turmoil of change.

The emergency situation, following independence and the outbreak of violence, is being replaced by longer-term socio-economic problems. This development has led many aid agencies to re-examine their priorities and update strategies. Paul Murray, desk officer, outlines the future directions of Federation initiatives: “The Federation is shifting away from relief and encouraging self-sufficiency among vulnerable groups and the National Society. This means that we are developing programmes to build the capacities of the National Society and the communities most affected.”

The work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a lifeline for many in Georgia. As with other countries in the region experiencing serious economic and social problems, the pressure is on to reduce and re-design programmes.

However, it should not be forgotten, during this period of re-evaluation, that for the time being the relief brought by the Red Cross to hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia is their only protection against the brutal reality of transition in the former Soviet Union.


Karin Mattisson
Karin Mattisson is a freelance journalist based in Sweden.

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